Colombia recently announced that government workers will visit seven towns hit by several years of violence and collect blood samples from local residents to help forensic teams identify more than 28,000 unidentified bodies exhumed over roughly three years.
The news, though grim and upsetting, has helped put the country’s long-forgotten crisis back into international spotlight.
Not many people know the world’s second-most internally displaced peoples — around 5.7 million — are found in Colombia, according to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) 2015 annual report on the refugee crisis worldwide. It comes right after Syria with 6.5 million IDPs.
And it’s not just the numbers that are baffling. As per the UNHCR:
“Despite government efforts to improve its response to forced displacement and to implement the Law on Victims and Land Restitution (Victims Law), widespread security risks and violence involving the forced recruitment of children and youth, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), threats, disappearances and murders, continue to occur.”
While much of the world’s attention remains transfixed on Syria, the plight of Colombia’s civil war goes largely ignored in the media.
For almost five decades, Colombia has been plagued with a civil war between government forces, paramilitary groups and guerrilla fighters. Some 220,000 people have died as a result of the bloody conflict that began in 1964.
Many attribute the violence and high number of displacement to the left-wing guerrilla groups. But, according to a subtle reference by the UNHCR in its report, it’s the right-wing paramilitary groups that are responsible for all of that. A UN report in 2012 stated that Colombian paramilitaries have "disappeared" nearly 20,000 people.
Colombian activists also consider paramilitary groups the greatest threat to the nation’s security.
In 2014, an activist told Al Jazeera that a paramilitary group placed bounties on a group for visiting the U.K. to talk about the human rights situation in Colombia with British and Irish politicians.
In addition, Colombia has also been a hub of some of the most violent and sophisticated drug trafficking organizations in the world since the 1970s which, in turn, has given birth to criminal gangs and, consequently, even more violence.
Last year, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Rodrigo Londoño — alias Timochenko, the leader of Latin America’s longest-running left wing guerrilla insurgency, aka the FARC — signed an historic deal which was supposed to bring an end to the country’s decades-long conflict. But human rights organizations condemned the pact, arguing it “sacrifices victims’ right to justice.”
“No international tribunal has allowed convicted war criminals to evade prison for these types of serious crimes,” José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, stated in December. “The new agreement goes even further by ensuring they will not face any remotely serious form of punishment.”
Efforts to exhume dead bodies may not be enough. Colombian authorities need to do more to address the difference causes and sources of the widespread violence that has engulfed the country for more than 50 years.